The Girl Who Knew Their Names: A gripping crime thriller
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A young actress with a vendetta. A glittering Hollywood gala. A cold-blooded murder among the stars.
“This is truly a ten-star read!” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Goodreads Reviewer
Asha has snagged the most coveted catering job in Los Angeles. But she doesn't realize she's going to face the most brutal predator in town on her first day.
Her fate is inextricably linked to that of a haunted young actress, Emma Foster, who holds a dark secret that can bring an entire industry down.
But the most powerful man in the city is on to her.
And he has one aim. To silence the truth, no matter what it takes.
Asha has to choose between keeping her team alive and saving Emma from her terrifying fate.
How will Asha decide?
If you enjoy gripping thrillers with flawed but gutsy heroines, vigilante action and suspenseful twists that get your pulse pounding, you'll love this crime series by award-winning Canadian novelist, Tikiri Herath.
Get this page-turner now!
“Drama, mystery, backstabbing, glamour, fashion and glorious cakes, bikinis, yachts and guns, this book has it all. It shows creativity at its best.” ~Advanced Reader.
The Girl Who Knew Their Names is the fifth novel in the addictive Red Heeled Rebels international mystery & crime series.
Release date: June 30, 2020
Publisher: Nefertiti Press
Print pages: 362
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The Girl Who Knew Their Names: A gripping crime thriller
I didn’t realize I was about to witness a cold-blooded murder.
Katy and I were on the penthouse floor of Chateau Montmartre, a luxury six-star hotel, on famed Sunset Boulevard.
Two pairs of white-gloved hands pulled open the massive double-doors. With a nod to the butlers, we stepped inside the most sumptuous ballroom I’d seen in my life.
The ceiling was as high as in a cathedral and dripped with ornate crystal chandeliers whose sparkling light bounced off the gold speckled wallpaper.
My heart beat a tick faster.
This was a venue fit for royals. This was where the pampered celluloid kings and queens of the City of Angels hung out.
We were stepping into a swanky Hollywood gala, graced by the glamorous glitterati of this town. This lavish celebration was being streamed live across the globe for the masses to watch as they sat on their couches, chomping on popcorn and sipping on sodas.
The world was glued to their screens, eager to glimpse their favorite silver screen star, keen to gossip about their hairdo, outlandish dress or irrational love life. Like me, they were oblivious to what was about to unfold right in front of their eyes.
The hand-selected guests in this room had received their invitations tucked in white gift boxes wrapped with golden ribbon. As if the exclusive invitation wasn’t enough, inside those boxes had been miniature jade carvings, platinum pens, and jewelry pieces encrusted with precious stones, that together would have cost more than a compact car. This was not a proposal anyone declined lightly.
Hollywood never played small.
I tried not to gawk.
Everyone looked stunning, dressed in shimmering ball gowns and stylish tuxedos. Flashes of gold, silver, diamonds, and pearls twinkled to us from all corners of the room.
While Katy, with her fiery red hair, impossibly long legs, and slender Irish genes, could have passed for a starlet, we were the odd ones out. I was especially out of place, a petite half-Asian girl in my little black dress and signature red heels. I had my hair up in a bun and wore my makeup light. This was our uniform as the official catering partner to the celebrity Chef Pierre. He was the caterer every high-society VIP clamored to have at their functions around the world.
The gala was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the Red Heeled Rebels catering company had been commissioned to make the honorary cake on behalf of Chef Pierre.
Katy and I weren’t guests. We were working.
We glided discreetly into the room on our red heels, maneuvering our way around the star-studded tables, rolling our shiny chrome trolley on which sat the most extravagant five-tier cake I’d ever made. Stamped on the base of each royal blue tier was Chef Pierre’s famed logo in silver icing.
My heart thumped louder with every step I took. I couldn’t believe I was here. My dream had come true. This was why I’d spent copious hours poring over recipes and experimenting for years, until the day I found the exotic secret formula that hooked Chef Pierre and his discerning upscale clients.
My life had changed the day he’d discovered my talents. Never in a thousand years had I imagined a girl from the slums of India would end up serving dessert to Hollywood’s finest. I’m sure Katy felt the same way. She began her life as a runaway in the back alleys of Toronto, digging for scraps of food in garbage bins and sleeping in doorways, doing her best to avoid the police.
We had finally made it.
What I really wanted to do was somersault down the center aisle. Instead, I pasted a polite smile on my face, the kind that said I know my place. I knew the famous A-listers smiling our way were smiling at my cake. Not us. We were invisible to them.
“Hey, Asha?” Katy whispered to me with a giddy look. “Can you believe this? What are we even doing here?”
“I know. Crazy, isn’t it?” I whispered back.
Keeping our professional smiles intact, we pushed the cake to the front of the room, where the Master and Mistress of Ceremony stood, waiting to announce the lucky guest who’d get invited for the cake-cutting ceremony.
As Katy and I had practiced more than a dozen times before, we carefully transferred the cake from the cart onto the podium. I plucked a silver-plated cutting knife from the cart and placed it on a gold-trimmed serving plate.
Our first job was done.
We stepped back and dissolved into the background. We still had work to do. After the cake-cutting ceremony, our next job was to slice the cake and serve it to the tables, greeting guests in French and leaving them with a taste of the old continent--exotic yet dignified. Chef Pierre had trained us well.
“Mr. Eddie Manx, would you kindly do the honors?” boomed the Master of Ceremonies into the mic.
The room broke into applause.
Everyone knew who Manx was. Even me. He was the prominent Hollywood director who’d just been acknowledged for a lifetime of filmmaking that evening.
I watched the silver-haired man push his chair back and get up. He brushed his lapel and flashed a smug grin at the actress sitting next to him. She was wearing a curve-hugging, maroon lace gown and had pulled her hair up into a high ponytail. I recognized that distinct unibrow. She was Maria Pablo, an eighteen-year-old who’d moved to LA from Mexico City only a year ago. Her fast rise to fame had surprised many and had set the tabloid tongues wagging.
I noticed she didn’t smile back. She didn’t even clap. Even from where I was standing, hidden in the wings, I could see an unhappy darkness on her face. She looked down and pretended to play with the purse on her lap.
Manx strode up to the front, chest out, arms swinging, a cocky expression on his face, like he owned the place. In fact, he did. He’d made the careers of most of the actors and actresses here. It was clear he’d expected to be called up for the honor.
A strange movement at his table made me turn.
It was Maria.
She was getting up slowly but deliberately, her heavy makeup gleaming under the lights of the chandelier above. A black handgun glistened in her hand. Her face was taut. Her dark red lips were set in a grim line. She knew exactly what she was doing.
I watched her petrified, feeling like I was viewing a slow-motion movie scene. I wanted to scream to everyone to watch out, but my mouth refused to open.
While the room was focused on the director in front, her closest tablemates gawked at her, too frozen to speak, to call out, to stop her. None of us, it seemed, believed what was happening right in front of us.
The shot rang out.
Manx crumpled to the ground, grasping his chest, two feet from my beautiful cake.
A dark shadow was leaping up the stairs from below.
I stifled a shriek and jumped toward the banister. Katy clutched my arm in fright.
“What the heck’s going on up there?” said a familiar voice.
I breathed a sigh of relief. It was Tetyana.
She stopped as soon as she saw us.
From afar, with her six-foot athletic build and military-style haircut, Tetyana could be mistaken for Charlize Theron’s character in Mad Max. From close, her sharp Eastern European features and green eyes could arrest anyone. And not in a good way. Tetyana was a warrior and she never let you forget it.
“Gosh, you scared me,” said Katy, letting go of my arm.
I leaned against the railing, trying to catch my breath.
“You two okay?” asked Tetyana.
We did the right thing after that shot rang out.
The Master and Mistress of Ceremonies had stepped back horrified, away from Manx’s bleeding body, and the room had erupted in screams.
Everyone, it had seemed, was shrieking in horror or confusion. Someone had shouted at someone to call nine-one-one. Someone else had hollered for everyone to remain seated. But no one had listened. The ballroom upstairs had been in chaos.
Katy and I hadn’t hung around. We’d dashed into the stairwell that went from the penthouse lobby to the penthouse kitchen, one floor below.
The sooner we distanced ourselves from this scene, the better. We had enough baggage as it was, violence that had followed us doggedly across four continents. We didn’t need any more drama in our lives.
“Heard a gunshot,” said Tetyana as she climbed toward us, her piercing eyes looking us over for injuries. “What’s going on?”
I noticed the shiny Glock in her hands. It usually remained concealed under her leather jacket, together with an extra magazine of rounds and the Japanese tanto-like knife that could slice through bone. Tetyana always came prepared. I wondered if anyone else had noticed her gun.
“You won’t believe this,” said Katy, breathlessly. “Maria shot Eddie Manx. We saw it happen right in front of us.”
“Who’s Maria?” Tetyana asked, frowning, “and who the heck’s Manx?”
“Maria’s an actress,” I explained. “She shot a famous director. Just now. No idea why.”
Tetyana had grown up in a border town in Ukraine, where she’d been forced into skirmishes with the brutal Russian militia. That was where both her brother and her mother had been assassinated in cold blood. Though we all lived in New York now, she spent her days fine-tuning her weapons and combat skills and was my head of security. Tetyana was more keen on following the latest firearms reviews than the world’s entertainment elite.
Though I had grown up overseas too, I was not totally in the dark to Hollywood and its cultural context. Born in Nairobi to mixed parents, I grew up in Dar-es-Salaam and Goa, but I’d spent my teen years in Toronto. And that was where I’d met Katy, my BFF and my second-hand at the Red Heeled Rebels catering company. Everything I’d learned about the cinema and its stars, I’d learned from her.
“No other casualties?” asked Tetyana, slipping the gun back into her holster.
“No one else got hurt, except the guy who got shot,” I said. “We ran out as soon as it happened.”
“Smart move,” she said with a curt nod.
Tetyana pried open the stairwell door and scanned the lobby. We peered under her shoulder.
The penthouse lobby was filling with people. Security guards were rushing into the ballroom shouting, while the guests were streaming out, in varying stages of distress. One guard hollered, “No one leave!” A police siren wailed in the distance.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Katy, her hand flying to her mouth. “That’s her.”
We turned to see what she was gawking at.
“She’s the one who did it,” Katy whispered, pointing.
A blonde woman in an off-the-shoulder pink gown was leading Maria Pablo out of the main doors. I knew that blonde was a famous actress, one who’d graced the screen many times recently. I frowned, trying to recall her name.
“Emma Foster,” said Katy as if reading my mind. “She was in The Killing House, remember?”
Tetyana shrugged. “Never seen it,” she said.
“Not yet,” I said.
“She’s going out with Platinum Price. He won a Grammy this year,” Katy prattled on. “Everybody’s talking about them.”
As we watched, Maria stumbled and fell to her knees near the ballroom entrance. Emma tried to help her up but Maria sat in a crumpled heap on the red carpet, her chest heaving, her face pale.
Emma crouched next to the girl. She was saying something to her when two burly guards ran up and grabbed Maria by the shoulders. Emma pushed them away with a fierce look on her face. They let go, but they didn’t leave. A third guard rushed to join his colleagues, and the three surrounded the two women on the floor.
As the guards kept watch with stern looks, Emma turned back to her friend and pulled her in. Maria fell into Emma’s arms, sobbing.
The police sirens were blaring now, like the entire LAPD was coming to the hotel’s doorstep. We could hear them all the way up here.
“Unbelievable,” said Katy shaking her head. “I can’t imagine why she’d do something like this.”
“This is not our business,” said Tetyana, closing the door and turning around. “And the cops are coming.”
She leaped down the stairs. “Follow me, girls,” she called out. “Gotta get away from the crime scene.”
We didn’t wait. We scrambled after her.
Tetyana had good reasons for distrusting the authorities.
We all did.
If the lobby upstairs had been in pandemonium, the kitchen downstairs had descended into a madhouse.
All work had come to a grinding halt.
The sous chefs, waiters, busboys, and the dishwashers were excitedly yapping at each other. Even George, the head waiter was talking loudly, gesturing wildly. The only dangerously quiet person was Larry, the head chef. He was scowling at the door, annoyed this external event had disrupted his smooth-functioning kitchen.
The kitchen staff turned in anticipation as Tetyana, Katy, and I trooped in. Everyone had heard the gunshot, but no one knew what had truly transpired.
“What the hell did you do now?” Larry bellowed as soon as he saw me.
Larry was an award-winning, headliner chef, one who’d received a Michelin star the year before. The hotel would never reprimand or fire him lest they lose that coveted star, and this meant he had the upper hand on every occasion. And he knew it.
He’d been barking at me ever since I arrived in this hotel. Though my stay was temporary, he didn’t enjoy sharing his space with other chefs, especially one with a name behind her. He despised Chef Pierre and was adamant I’d gotten the job because I was a woman. He didn’t even try to hide his contempt.
I wasn’t the only one he targeted. He relished throwing his weight around the kitchen, punishing his staff for minor mistakes, and treating them like modern slaves.
Every evening, Katy and I watched him from our pastry corner, feeling like collateral damage in his rampages. At least we were here only for a week. I felt bad for those who were stuck with him for good.
“Goodness me,” George said, his kohl eyeliner making his eyes look even wider. “What in tarnation is going on up there, ladies?”
George was always friendly and ready with a compliment or a smile. One reason, I was sure, was because we treated him like a friend and a colleague, and didn’t make hurtful gay jokes like Larry liked to.
Between Katy and me, we shared what we saw. As soon as they realized we didn’t have better answers to their endless questions, their attention flittered to their phones. Ignoring the strict no-phones policy the hotel had in all their kitchens, they began to follow celebrity guests who were unabashedly posting pictures and opinions from the floor above us. Soon, the air was buzzing with gossipy chatter.
But Tetyana was right.
This wasn’t our affair. Everybody in the ballroom had seen what had happened. Everybody knew who had shot whom. This was their business, and I didn’t want my team to have anything to do with it.
Katy and I walked over to our pastry kitchenette in the back and began cleaning up for the night. Tetyana stood nearby, keeping a watchful eye on the door. We knew they wouldn't let us leave right away, but we wanted to be prepared as soon as they gave the green light.
This kitchen served the penthouse ballroom and the VIP suites on the top floor of the hotel. It was a grander, nicer kitchen than the regular one in the building’s basement that served the family buffet restaurants downstairs.
Anne, Chef Pierre's assistant back in New York, had negotiated the kitchenette for my exclusive use with the hotel manager. As a business partner to one of the most renowned chefs in Europe, I got my own space in most places, even if the resident chef resented it. I was sure Anne paid a hefty sum for this accommodation. I didn’t know how much, but I was feeling grateful for it. Especially now.
In the pastry kitchenette at the back, I had a full-sized oven, my own fridge, a marble countertop, and the basic equipment I needed to bake, decorate, and assemble my cakes. I also had a walk-in pantry to store our ingredients, bags, and purses. It was nice to have my own space and to not compete in Larry’s territory.
I brought my mind back to the present. I’d made an overflow cake plus other pastries for guests with allergies and special dietary needs. No one was going to eat them now. It was time to pack it all up.
My untouched five-tiered cake and my expensive chrome trolley were still upstairs in the ballroom. That place was a crime scene now. I'd probably never see either again. I wondered what would happen to my cake. Would the investigators haul it away to the police station as evidence, or would they destroy it?
“I’m so totally dead,” said Katy, leaning against the stove and wiping her brow. She’d just swept and mopped the floor, her last job before we called it a night. “I just wanna go to our room and crash.”
"They’ll want to talk to everybody before they let us go,” said Tetyana. “Also we don’t want to be seen leaving too quickly.”
"How long do you--”
The kitchen door banged open.
Everyone turned to look.
A golden-haired apparition in a fairytale pink ball gown appeared on the threshold.
Her face was pale. She glanced around, twitching nervously, her eyes darting here and there.
What happened to her? She’s terrified, I thought.
Everyone gaped, wondering what a famous actress was doing in the kitchen. She’d used the back stairwell to come down while most hotel staff and visitors took the service elevator if they wanted to visit.
Something was wrong.
We heard someone heavy stomp down the stairs. It sounded like a giant was coming down.
Emma gave a wild look around the kitchen.
“Hide me!” she cried, her voice high-pitched, frantic. "He’s coming!”
No one moved.
“Emma!” called out a sonorous voice from the stairwell. It sounded like a man infuriated. Or inebriated. Or both.
I didn’t know what got into me. I stepped up, grabbed her by the arm, and propelled her toward my kitchenette. Katy pulled open our pantry door and Emma stumbled inside. Katy shut the door just as the kitchen door banged open again.
All eyes turned back to the entrance.
A portly giant of a man stood at the doorway, glowering at us, one hand on his tuxedo lapel and the other holding the door open.
He looked familiar, like someone I’d seen on the cover of a business magazine once. I was sure he was famous for something. Katy probably knew, but this wasn’t the time to ask.
"Where is she?” he roared.
With his heavy girth, his graying beard and beady eyes, he looked like someone you wouldn’t want to cross. The kitchen staff withered under his glare. It was like an ugly tornado had just swept into the room. Even Larry had lost his voice. He’d finally met his match.
Katy and I had placed ourselves in front of the pantry door and were trying to look as casual as we could, given the strange circumstances. Emma Foster was safely ensconced inside and wasn't making a peep. Tetyana stood next to the counter, a hand hovering over her belt where she kept her gun. She observed the man warily, eyes squinted, face taut.
Everyone else was avoiding eye contact with this powerful man, their faces filled with fear. I noticed they all, except for Larry, were slowly inching toward the back of the kitchen.
“Did you not hear me, people? Do you know who I am? I said where the hell is that woman?” the man yelled, his face turning red with rage.
What does he want with her? I'd seen the terrified look in Emma's eyes.
“There's only one way down through those stairs, so I know she came in here!”
He thumped his fist on the counter closest to him, where George had piled trays of finished plates for the busboys to take away and clean. With an irate yell, the man swept his hand across the table, pushing the dishes to the ground. They fell with a clatter, breaking into hundreds of pieces, left-over food flecks bouncing off the walls.
George threw his hands up in dismay. The kitchen staff stepped closer to a tight huddle in the far corner. Larry stared wide-eyed at the broken plates on the floor, his face turning a surly pink.
“If any of you are hiding her, I'll make sure you are all out on the streets tonight. You’re all fired!" shouted the tuxedoed man, frothing at the mouth.
Larry stepped up to the man. His face had turned an angry shade of purple, like he was trying his best not to implode. I noticed he’d balled his hands into fists.
“Mr. Zimmerman,” he said, through gritted teeth, “I don’t come to your film set and smash your cameras. How dare you come to my kitchen and mess with my things!” He was screaming now. “How dare you!”
The man in the tux stared at Larry in astonishment that anyone would dare talk back at him.
It was Larry’s turn to thump a fist on the counter, making his staff jump again. “Don’t bring your drama to my kitchen! I’ll tell you where the girl is. Then get the hell out of my space!”
“Your wench is in that closet," Larry shouted, pointing our way. “Take her and get out of my kitchen! Now!”
Zimmerman didn't wait. Pushing a busboy rudely aside, he marched toward us.
“Hey!” Tetyana called out. Before we could react, he stomped in between Katy and me and yanked the pantry door open.
“You!” he roared as he saw Emma crouched on the floor in the back. She was shielding her face, as if afraid he would hit her.
He stepped inside and slammed the door behind him.
"Are you trying to make me look bad? Is that your game, you dumb bimbo?"
We heard Zimmerman yell through the closed pantry door.
I thought I heard Emma reply, but it sounded like a scared whimper more than anything else.
“I can ruin your career, you know that? You'll never work in this town again. You can go back to that stupid postal job in Iowa and live in your parents’ basement. Is that what you want, you stupid girl!”
Tetyana moved a few feet closer to the pantry, her hand firmly on her weapon.
We could hear Emma talking in a low voice. She was trying to console the man, calm him, but he wasn’t toning down at all.
“Who do you think you are?” he shouted, “after all I’ve done for you? I made you. Without me, you’re nothing! Nothing, you hear me!”
Katy and I exchanged a horrified glance. He was a nasty man, any way you looked at him.
It sounded like Emma was pleading with him now. Her voice was high-pitched but muffled and hard to make out.
“Are you talking back to me? Didn’t you hear what I said, whore?”
I felt a shiver of disgust go through me. I glanced around the kitchen.
Shouldn’t we do something? Shouldn’t we get her out?
The head chef and his staff had already made up their minds. They wanted nothing to do with the director and the actor.
Larry had already stormed off into his office at the back after his spat with Zimmerman. The remaining kitchen staff had begun cleaning up and putting things away. George was picking up the broken pieces of dishes on the ground. Two busboys huddled in the back, absorbed in their phones, whispering conspiratorially to each other. I gathered they were watching reports of the incident that had just occurred in the ballroom.
I suddenly realized we had a weapon on our side.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Before I could click on the recording app, the sound of a stinging slap came from inside the pantry.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Katy, clutching my arm.
Then came another slap.
Emma cried out. “Please stop!”
Tetyana marched over and yanked the door open.
It was a shocking scene that unfolded in front of us.
Zimmerman had Emma pinned against the pantry shelves. She was cowering, her hands over her face. The man had his right hand in the air like he was about to strike her again. He turned around in surprise.
“Oi!" shouted Tetyana. “Stop this!”
She hadn't drawn her weapon yet, but in her black biker jacket, leather pants, and towering frame, she could be intimidating.
I walked over to stand next to my friend and turned the phone his way. I was only five feet tall with my heels on, but damned if I was going to look away. If he was going to hit this girl, the world was going to know about it.
Zimmerman opened his mouth to say something but stopped short when he saw my phone.
I took a picture. Then another.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled.
"What are you doing to her?" I barked right back.
He dropped Emma and glared at Tetyana and me. “Who do you people think you are?” he snarled.
“You’re not getting away with this," said Tetyana, glowering at him.
I finally located the video app and turned it on, angling the camera his way.
With a roar, he crashed out of the pantry and swiped his huge paw toward me.
I jumped back, pulling my phone to my chest.
“You hit her!” I yelled.
Zimmerman lunged at me. “Gimme that, you—”
Tetyana yanked me back, out of his reach.
“Touch her and you’re a dead man!” she shouted.
She stepped forward and got eyeball to eyeball with him. He stared at her, his eyes flashing with fury, but that didn’t faze Tetyana. She flicked her jacket open to show her sidearm.
That stopped him.
A collective gasp came from George and the other staff who’d spotted the black weapon.
Zimmerman stepped back, furious but defeated.
“You’re gonna regret this!” he growled as he spun around and stomped out of the kitchen. He slammed the door behind him.
It took us all a few seconds to recover.
The kitchen staff, who’d gone silent during the tirade, returned to their tasks one by one, avoiding all eye contact with us now. Even George.
Tetyana moved back to the counter, her eyes trained on the entrance in case Zimmerman or someone else came in hollering.
I turned around and stepped inside the pantry with Katy.
Emma had fallen to the ground and was crying silently. Even in the dark, I could see Zimmerman’s red hand marks on her face.
“Hey,” said Katy, crouching low and placing a hand on Emma’s arm. “You okay, hun?"
"What's going on?" I asked. “And who was that man?”
“That’s the most powerful producer in Hollywood,” answered Katy, handing a tissue to Emma.
Emma nodded and wiped her eyes. “My boss.”
“He hit you,” I said, “We all heard it. We should tell the police.”
“No,” she replied, her voice trembling.
“The cops are upstairs," I said. “We can get someone to come and talk to you.”
“No!” Emma looked at me, panic-stricken. “Don’t do that.”
“It’s okay,” said Katy, rubbing her arm. “You don’t have to be scared. It’s okay, hun.”
That seemed to calm Emma down. She took a deep breath and looked away, as if trying to decide what to do next.
“She did it for us,” she said in a whisper.
I barely heard her. I leaned in.
“What did you say, hun?” asked Katy.
“She did it for all of us,” repeated Emma in a shaky voice. “She wanted to help us. Help the other girls.”
“Who’s she?” I asked, “and what other girls?”
Emma rubbed her face violently, smudging her makeup and mascara. It was like she was trying to remove a hurtful memory.
“Are you talking about Maria Pablo?” Katy asked in a soft voice.
Emma looked away and was silent for a few seconds. Her lips quivered like she was trying to summon the strength to speak.
"He's going to ruin me, you know,” she said, finally. She began wiping her hands on her pink dress in a continuous motion, a nervous gesture I was sure. She looked at me with pleading eyes. “Please don’t share that picture, okay? Delete it. I beg you.”
“That was assault,” I said, “it’s proof how your boss treats you. You can’t let him get away with this.”
“You don't understand,” said Emma. “You’ve no idea what he can do. This is the end of everything. I worked so hard and he’s going to take it all away.”
The door to the stairwell banged open once again, making everyone jump.
Tetyana placed herself in front of us, shielding us.
It was a hotel security guard, one I'd seen upstairs earlier.
He scanned the room and stopped when he spotted Emma and us. He gestured our way. "Ladies, I need everyone who was upstairs during the incident to come with me. You need to give a statement to the cops. You can’t leave the premises until you do.”
We stared at him.
“Don’t want to keep the sheriff’s people waiting,” he said, “they’re talking to everybody and they don’t have a lot of time. Come on up, please.” He opened the door wide and gestured to us again, looking weary. “They’re waiting. Come on now.”
Emma picked up her gown and got up.
With a sigh, she stepped out of the pantry but stopped in her tracks and turned back. She gave Katy and me another pleading look through tear-filled eyes.
“Please don’t say anything to anyone,” she whispered. “Please don’t make this harder for me.”
Without waiting for an answer, she turned around, walked over to the door, and ducked under the guard’s arm, back into the stairwell.
Katy and I trudged upstairs, following the security guard.
The lobby was teeming with people. Mingled with the guests were several dozen men in severe black suits and white coiled tubes in their ears.
“Secret Service?” Katy whispered to me.
“Bodyguards, I think,” I replied, “for the big names.”
The ballroom entrance had been cordoned off with yellow tape. A team of LAPD officers had taken over the lobby. A line already snaked around the room with people waiting to give their version of the story. The guards looked overwhelmed as they tried to herd everyone in place. We stepped into the back of the line as instructed, but lost Emma to the crowd. Zimmerman was nowhere to be seen.
As I waited for Katy to give her name and statement, I peeked into the ballroom. Manx’s body was covered with a white sheet. Nearby, my five-tier cake was still standing tall and strong on the podium, despite the onslaught of investigators buzzing around it.
That was when I noticed the red marks on the bottom tier. Is that blood splatter on my cake? With a shiver, I turned away.
When we were done with our statements, we slipped back into the kitchen to find Tetyana and leave. All I wanted was to crash now. Seeing my pristine cake with blood on it had been the last straw.
As soon as we got back to our hotel room on the fifth floor, Katy plunked herself on the couch and turned on the television, declaring she wanted to shut off her brain and veg. I went to take a shower to clear my mind while Tetyana stepped inside her room to decompress.
It seemed like everyone needed time to digest what we’d seen. Even though the incident hadn’t targeted us personally, it had been a weird day all around.
Anne, who’d organized this trip for us, had booked two small rooms side by side with a connecting door. We were in the same hotel where most of the events were being held this week. I was thankful we didn’t have to shuttle back and forth from somewhere else or wade through LA traffic every day. My daily commute was a sixty-seven-floor elevator ride up to the penthouse kitchen.
The primary reason we were in Los Angeles was to cater to a series of fundraising events for Dina Abbott. Abbott was running for state governor that year and had close ties to Madame Bouchard, the Diplomatic Dragon Lady, the woman who connected Chef Pierre with the higher echelons of society everywhere.
This Hollywood gala had been a bonus gig I’d twisted Anne’s arm to negotiate at the last minute. I would be down here, anyway. Chef Pierre had been delighted to get extra exposure in LA, and my team had been happy to know we were making more money.
The plan had worked well, except no one got to eat my cake tonight.
Chef Pierre was a global celebrity status symbol. Having his cakes at a party was like having a Bugatti in the garage. Cakes with his logo were tweeted about and Instagrammed with pride. This meant he was always in demand, received exclusive high-priced orders, and all that trickled down to us.
Though the chef had an office in New York where the Red Heeled Rebels bakery was located, he was more a figurehead who traveled constantly between London, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and everywhere else to meet celebrities and smile for the cameras.
The Red Heeled Rebels did all the work.
My BFF Katy, originally from Canada, kept the finances for our business. Nineteen-year-old Luc from France was my head cake decorator, and multilingual Bibi from Pakistan, a teen who really should have been in school, managed all our errands and deliveries.
Peace, our legal adviser, originally from Tanzania, was now in law school in Boston. Seventeen-year-old Win from Laos, the youngest in our team, was at Stanford, acing her classes and winning awards in college hackathons. Her computer skills had come in handy in all of our missions.
David from Yemen and Tetyana from Ukraine, the two oldest in our team, made up our security duo. Both had paramilitary training in their former lives from real battlefields and spent their time at the dojo teaching self-defense and martial arts skills to local schoolkids and office workers.
My childhood best friend, Chanda, was back in Tanzania, her homeland, living with her mother and Peace’s father. She managed the orphanage we funded—the orphanage that took in children rescued from labor camps and brothels.
This was why we did what we did.
Any money we made from the bakery and the dojo that wasn’t needed for operations, we channeled back to those kids. Together, the Red Heeled Rebels made a tightly knit team, working for a common cause.
We saved lives. This was the glue that held us together.
In the evenings, after I shut down the bakery for the day, Katy, Luc, Bibi, and I hopped over to the dojo for our own private training. We learned everything from David and Tetyana, from knife handling, grappling, and punching to kicking. Then, on weekends, they taught us weapons handling at the local range.
We had to be prepared for anything.
After a lifetime of getting trafficked, sold, and enslaved, we were ready to lead normal lives. Our bakery and dojo gave us this comfort. But none of us were sure when our past could catch up to us, and we knew there were people out there who would rather we disappeared off the face of the earth.
This meant we had to stay vigilant.
The Red Heeled Rebels’ mission was one we never talked about with others. As far as Chef Pierre knew, I led a team of bakers and sous chefs and had the secret recipes his upscale clients loved. My job was to make our undercover operation as invisible as possible, so no one would get wind of our pasts.
It was Katy.
“What’s up?” I called from the bathroom.
“You’ve got to see this.”
I’d just got out of the shower and was toweling my hair. I wrapped my hair in my towel and stepped out of the washroom, still in my bathrobe. Katy was sitting on the couch, her eyes glued to the television.
“You won’t believe what they’re saying about the shooting,” she said, not looking up.
“What’s going on?”
"You have to sit down for this,” she replied, tugging at my sleeve, pushing me down next to her.
“Hey Tetyana!” she called out, screeching in my ear. “Wake up!”
In a flash, Tetyana appeared at the open doorway that separated the two rooms.
“I was already up,” she said, “prepping for our meeting. What’s all this about?”
That reminded me.
We had our weekly check-in that evening. I looked at the clock on the bedside table. It said ten to nine, Pacific time, which meant it was almost midnight in New York and Boston and eight in the morning in Nairobi, where Chanda was that day. Our weekly meeting was supposed to start in ten minutes.
“Watch,” commanded Katy, pointing at the screen.
Tetyana came over and perched on the sofa arm.
“Pretty crazy stuff,” said Katy, as she turned up the volume.
A female news anchor was talking on the screen.
"We have an update from this afternoon's horrific incident,” she was saying, “Maria Pablo, a young up-and-coming actress, shot Eddie Manx, the world-famous director, in front of three hundred people at a Hollywood dinner tonight. Today is the gala’s twenty-fifth anniversary, so it couldn't have happened on a worse day. This has shaken many folks up. Our LA correspondent, Tom Preston, is standing by to give us a live report.”
The rolling banner at the bottom switched to read, Live from Los Angeles.
The screen split into two, and a young man with a mic appeared on the second half. He was standing on Sunset Boulevard, with the facade of our hotel in the background.
“It’s quite unbelievable, Sandra. Eddie Manx was declared deceased at the crime scene just an hour ago,” said the reporter, “His work was well respected and known around the world. The shock waves are being felt across Hollywoo—”
“Can you tell us exactly what happened tonight?" the anchor interrupted him. “Give us a blow by blow account, Tom.”
The reporter nodded.
"From what we know so far, the director had walked up to the front of the ballroom to give a speech when Maria Pablo stood up from her table and shot him point-blank in the chest. The coroner told us he died of a bullet wound through his heart. The police have arrested Ms. Pablo and taken her to the county jail, but they’re refusing to give further details until they get the green light from the sheriff’s department.”
“Now, Tom, there’s already a lot of buzz swirling around this horrific incident. Did you speak to any of the guests at the event? Can you tell our viewers if you’ve spoken to people in the industry to confirm or deny these rumors?"
"Well, Sandra, there is one story emerging, but it’s speculation at the moment. We’re still waiting for confirmation from our sources, but they have said it’s the most likely reasoning behind the, er, Pablo’s actions today."
"Can you be more specific, please?"
"It seems Manx was having a, er, an extramarital affair with Pablo. The director had promised her he’d leave his wife for over six months now, but that had never panned out, it seems. The, er, rumor is that Pablo shot him when she realized he would never leave his marriage.”
“What a story you’ve uncovered, Tom. Can you elaborate further?”
“I’d like to stress this is unsubstantiated and is merely speculation at the moment.”
“But that’s what everyone’s talking about, isn’t it?” said the anchor, her gossipy tone dripping with venom.
To be continued….
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